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Published on Saturday, 17 August 2013

3 stars

Zoo (venue website)
2-10, 12-17, 19-26 Aug, 12:30pm-1:30pm
Reviewed by Lizzie Bell

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

Theatre With Teeth live up to their name, with this deep and sometimes dark show about dealing with a death you know is coming – and how science is changing and affecting this scenario. As a woman and her friends prepare for her inevitable demise, their story is interspersed with the science of stem cells and embryonic development. The Nobel prize mentioned in the title, and whose implications are explored, is that of Gurdon and Yamanaka in 2012 – who discovered that skin cells could be reprogrammed to become like stem cells, bringing hope for new treatments for a range of conditions.

The issues tackled by this thought-provoking piece range from how to die a good death (and what that even means), to the questions of when life starts and whether we can take science too far. The beautiful illustrations of how stem cells work, and how embryos develop, are cleverly-done; however, some of the explanation was very rushed and somewhat muffled, which may have made it difficult for someone unfamiliar with the terms to understand.

The show does well to mesh together physical theatre, recordings of headlines and clever use of UV lighting. The characters within the personal story were well thought-out, and the repeating motifs of fighting the illness and feeling helpless in the face of a loved one's suffering were powerfully brought out through physical theatre. Among the spoken segments, the Oncologist brings the reality home in a very moving way: when you cannot save someone, the only thing left is 'making death ok'.

The interplay between the very personal story and the worldwide developments gave a good sense of perspective, and stopped the piece becoming overly morose. However, some of the changes of scale from global to personal were somewhat jarring. The show suffered slightly from the staging; on the one hand the close-in seating on three sides worked to bring the audience in, but it also made it difficult to hear what actors were saying when they faced away from you. The problem was compounded by the sounds from those acting behind them, and in general the play could have been designed more sympathetically to its performance space.

I think it’s almost inevitable that a show like this, which covers such complex and emotive issues, will struggle to find balance. The spacing of the spoken sections was done well and gave the audience time to consider the issues being presented. However, I felt that the part about designer babies was rather naïve, and didn't really recognise that people have different ideas of 'perfection' – nor how important imperfections are to making us who we are. Sweeping statements like "Who would choose to have a mentally handicapped child?" and "Who wouldn't take a pill to make you twice as intelligent, even if it doubled your risk of schizophrenia?" were made with no analysis or counter-argument, spoiling for me what was otherwise a very well-researched show.

But overall this was a well-presented and thoughtful show, which tackled a difficult and complex subject. This company, from Exeter University, have created a play that combines knowledge, tragedy and their theatrical skill. If you are looking for a deep, well-executed piece of physical theatre, then Nobel will scratch that itch and leave you with something to ponder for the day.

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